An issue of the mind: peak self-esteem

“I can’t do much anymore,” she said. “Most days, I feel pretty useless.” “That’s not true,” I countered. “You can do lots of things — lots of things!” “You think so?” She stared at me as if to ask, “What things?” “You can paint,” I said. “You can crochet.” To be honest, until I attempted to rattle off a list of activities in support of my claim, I hadn’t realized how few activities my friend performed.

“No one can avoid aging, but aging productively is something else.”

— Katharine Graham, American publisher and Pulitzer Prize winner

“I can’t do much anymore,” she said. “Most days, I feel pretty useless.”

“That’s not true,” I countered. “You can do lots of things — lots of things!”

“You think so?” She stared at me as if to ask, “What things?”

“You can paint,” I said. “You can crochet.” To be honest, until I attempted to rattle off a list of activities in support of my claim, I hadn’t realized how few activities my friend performed.

“Do you know,” she began, “what I enjoyed doing when I was younger?”

And by younger I knew she meant before moving into a seniors complex.

“I liked gardening,” she said, “and I liked cooking and often I would use what I had grown to cook a meal for my family.” She reached over and pulled a dog-eared magazine from a rack next to her lift chair.

“I found this recipe for fried chicken and it sounds delicious.”

She passed me the magazine. The picture made the dish look delectable and the recipe seemed simple enough. “Wow, that does look tasty,” I said. “Will you try making it?”

“Do you see a kitchen?” she asked, gesturing around the room. I felt embarrassed. All meals for seniors in the complex were prepared by kitchen staff — no opportunity to cook.

“The little park between the buildings is nice,” she said glancing out the window.

“No place for a garden, though.” I realized why my friend felt useless. She was so focused on what she could no longer do that she couldn’t see the possibilities that existed for something new. I had known her for years and could tell that her level of self-esteem was steadily declining.

I remembered reading once that self-esteem rises steadily over our working life but declines steadily after retirement. I wondered if it was true and, if true, why?

A little research uncovered a fascinating study on self-esteem and aging published by the American Psychological Association. The study — led by Ulrich Orth, a professor at the University of Bern in Switzerland — concluded that self-esteem typically peaks around age 60 and then begins a gradual decline.

According to the study, 3,617 adults living in America were surveyed four times between the years of 1986 and 2002. To gauge their level of self-esteem, participants were asked to rate their level of accord with such statements as, “I take a positive attitude about myself,” “At times I think I am no good at all,” and “All in all, I am inclined to feel that I am a failure.”

The study also featured a series of questions pertaining to health, marital status, income, education, ethnicity and the number of stressful, life-changing events each had experienced.

It is interesting to note that (according to the study) women generally had lower levels of self-esteem through adulthood with levels converging as both sexes reached their 80s and 90s. Not surprisingly, income and health were major factors with regard to healthy self-esteem.

“We found that people who have higher incomes and better health in later life tend to maintain their self-esteem as they age,” said Orth. “We cannot know for certain that more wealth and better health directly lead to higher self-esteem, but it does appear to be linked in some way. It is possible that wealth and health are related to feeling more independent and better able to contribute to one’s family and society, which in turn bolsters self-esteem.”

Theories abound as to why self-esteem (apparently) peaks around middle age and then drops off dramatically thereafter. Authors of the study suggest that, “Midlife is a time of highly stable work, family and romantic relationships. People increasingly occupy positions of power and status. In contrast, older adults may be experiencing a change in roles such as an empty nest, retirement and obsolete work skills, in addition to declining health.”

Self-esteem author and expert Nathaniel Branden — now a senior himself — has a slightly different view. Branden claims that self-esteem will naturally rise and fall over the course of a lifetime. Some people will experience “higher self-esteem at the age of 10 than at the age of 60, and the reverse is also true.” Branden says that self-esteem need not plummet with age.

According to Branden, most of us underestimate our “power to change and grow.” What was true for us yesterday will not necessarily be true tomorrow. Therefore, it becomes imperative to regularly assess what it is that we believe to be true about ourselves and the world around us. Improving self-esteem at any age is really about taking responsibility for our lives.

“With the proper motivation, genuine growth and an improved sense of self-esteem are attainable goals.” According to Branden, that comes with the acknowledgement that some things are simply beyond our control. Essentially, change what you can change and accommodate what you cannot. “Allowing such factors to negatively impact your self-esteem is a mistake.”

Call it the power of a positive mental attitude, but there is also evidence to suggest that the better someone’s self-esteem, the fewer health and emotional problems later in life. Diminishing health is often attributed to diminishing self-esteem levels. Generally speaking, people who work hard at building and maintaining a strong sense of self-worth are healthier in mind and body. I wondered if my old friend might enjoying spending some time in my kitchen. Especially if I managed to find all the ingredients necessary to make delicious fried chicken. And I didn’t have a garden, but I did have a lovely flower bed suitable for planting vegetables.

“Self-esteem is fluid and ever-changing,” says Branden. “As we age, it is imperative we remain mindful of the importance of self-acceptance and self-respect.”

Perhaps the best advice came from an active, enthusiastic senior whom I spoke with recently. She was on her way to a yoga class so the conversation was brief. “There are three components to feeling good about life,” she said. “Stay active. Stay engaged. Stay interested.”

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His recent book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at

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